What's Obama's Next Move?
Don’t get distracted by Yemen. The real threat is elsewhere.
America's present focus may be intensely Yemen-oriented—in response to the underwear bomber's links to al Qaeda cadres based in that Arab state—but the Obama administration would err gravely in 2010 if it were to shift its primary, anti-terrorist attention away from Pakistan, without question America's biggest strategic headache.
A nuclear-armed Muslim country with a fragile democratic government, Pakistan is our ostensible ally in the Afghan war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. The problem is, however, that the Pakistani military—which is not under civilian control, and which chafes continually against the democratically elected president, Asif Ali Zardari—wishes for nothing more fervently than the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan. The Obama administration cannot continue to ignore this obscene dance, in which the army of an allied state gives succor to the very enemy that young American soldiers fight daily in bloody battle. MORE >>
The economy is still in dire straits, but Obama won’t stop acting cool.
My advice to President Obama would be to abandon the politics of cool, which I think have defined his first year of office, for something that looks and feels a little more real and authentic. I think the cool that served him well as a candidate has harmed him as president. Whether it's the angst and frustration people feel with an economy that seems to be serving those at the top better than those struggling the most, or the people for whom a job makes a difference between college or not, or, at the end of the spectrum, where a job makes a difference between dinner or not, Obama hasn't displayed the skill to emote anything that resembles the country’s mood.
I also think that he has been too reluctant to show outrage at things that are so plainly outrageous. Take government spending: Obama campaigned against earmarks, and I think he's been ill served in refusing to show outrage that the process is broken. His reluctance to show emotions that match the American people’s puts a greater distance between him and the people than any of his predecessors. Clinton was the best—he showed pain to a degree I don't think Obama could be expected to do. MORE >>
Obama got his big victory with health-care reform. Now it’s time to lower everybody’s expectations.
Ronald Reagan once compared the flow of a presidency to the flow of a movie: Grab their attention at the beginning, coast for a while; then a big finale at the end. When he signs health-care reform in January, Barack Obama will have successfully completed Act One. Health care and the massive stimulus bill passed back in February represent the two most important pieces of progressive legislation in four decades. Domestically, Obama has had the most successful opening act of any president since Reagan himself.
Now comes the hard part. In passing health care, Obama spent his political capital almost down to the last dime. As much as I’d love Congress to pass cap and trade legislation to fight global warming, there’s probably not enough political bandwidth for a third piece of transformative legislation any time soon. (Especially one that threatens significant short-term economic pain in the middle of a deep recession.) So politically, Obama is going to have to spend 2010 doing what Reagan suggested: coasting. He’s going to have to satisfy himself with small, undramatic domestic accomplishments because if he doesn’t, he’s likely to experience large, dramatic defeats. Just as importantly, he’s going to have to lower expectations. In a new president’s first midterm elections, his party almost always loses, often big. And that’s especially true when the economy sucks. For Obama, part of coasting successfully will be absorbing that inevitable blow. That means convincing the press that a 25-seat Republican pickup in the House isn’t a personal repudiation or an ideological sea-change; it’s par for the course. MORE >>
It will fire up progressives before the midterm elections. And it will further marginalize the right.
The intensity of the left wing’s disaffection with President Obama really hit me over the holidays, when I kept getting into angry arguments with friends and relatives who insisted that our current president is just like Bush. With apologies to my in-laws, this is insane. During his first year in office, Obama has shepherded the economy away from total collapse, put Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, pushed through deeply compromised but still historic health-care reform, rescued the Copenhagen climate talks from disaster, and started the process of closing Guantanamo. Obviously, there have been disappointments, even betrayals, particularly around civil liberties. But given the squalid realities of American politics, it’s hard to imagine any current president surpassing Obama’s progressive achievements.
Nevertheless, even if the fury of the left isn’t wholly justified, it needs to be taken seriously. Going into the 2010 midterms, the Republican base is burning with passionate intensity, while key Democratic blocs are dispirited, even despairing. They need a victory, a reason to remember why they were so ecstatic when Obama was elected. He can give them one by putting an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” MORE >>
And while you’re at it, Mr. President, reduce the deficit and protect us from asteroids, too.
Were I able to determine President Obama’s agenda for 2010, I’d presume that the Iraq drawdown is going to continue apace; I’d delegate responsibility for an Afghanistan strategy; and I’d prioritize the following additional items:
—Deficit reduction: We’re spending too much, borrowing too much, and facing unsustainably high interest payments on our outstanding and projected debts. It’s time to get our fiscal house in order. For a start, I recommend means-testing Social Security and Medicare, ending farm subsidies, repealing prevailing wage mandates for government contracts, abolishing public employee unions, phasing out the mortgage deduction, and reducing America’s role in policing the world.
—End the War on Drugs: Surely there is a better way to invest the billions we squander on this obviously doomed effort at home and abroad. Develop a sane system for regulating narcotics, stop sending people to jail for mere possession, and eliminate the black market that kills so many people in our country and destabilizes so many governments outside it. MORE >>